David Bazan on Escaping Pedro The Lion, Finding Hope and Embracing Going Solo

David Bazan. Facebook

In 1995, David Bazan formed Pedro The Lion as a solo project. It soon grew into a full-fledged band, serving as his outlet for, well, pretty much everything, until he laid the outfit to rest in 2006 and started working alone.

Lugubrious, despondent and often incredibly depressing, Bazan’s songs wrestled with deep existential quandaries about love, life, loss and death, much of which was driven by Bazan’s internal struggles with his faith.

Raised as an Evangelical Christian, the Seattle-based songwriter has battled against (and also embraced) his religious upbringing since Pedro The Lion’s debut EP, Whole, was released in 1997, using it as a powerful metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life as a whole—2002’s Control, for example, tells the story of an adulterous businessman who is then murdered by his wife, but its bleak narrative is interlaced with religious references and imagery.

On his new album Care—the fourth studio album under his own name—Bazan recasts his anxieties in a more general, universal context.

Rather than introspective songs that search for inner peace through their characters, Bazan—who stopped believing in God some seven years ago—has turned his focus outwards, towards an increasingly unstable and volatile world and, in particular, USA.

Yet, as Bazan explains over the phone from his home, he’s still telling the same story, and fighting the same demons, that he always has. It’s not, it seems, getting any easier, either.

It’s been just over a decade since you put Pedro The Lion to rest. How do you feel about everything 10 years down the line?

In general, the last 10 years have been very difficult just trying to figure out how to be myself and keep making music and touring. I feel like with this record, I’m finally coming to my ground zero, to a direction that I feel suits me and is me and is sustainable. I don’t know. I’ve been looking for direction, I guess, and at this moment I finally feel like I’m finding the plot.

Why do you think it took so long? What was blocking you?

I stopped doing Pedro The Lion because there was something at the center of my process that just wasn’t working. Every time I would finish a record, I’d be dropped down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon again, just like “Alright, now you’ve got to find your way out one more time.” And that was so destabilizing for everybody around.

But it’s really hard for me to clearly communicate this stuff because I’m still wrestling with it. I just have the first glimpses of direction and stability that I’ve had in a while. What I hope to figure out this year as I tour this record is what exactly was going on, but this is the first time I’m really hopeful about it.

I wish I had a clearer answer. But that was the reason that Pedro The Lion stopped being the brand name that I used—it was the brand name of my dysfunction and I was trying to get away from that. So it’s taken me a while to solve that. And the way that I’m talking might be evidence that it’s not completely solved, but I feel close to it.

There is still a fair amount of existential crisis and uncertainty on Care. In particular, “Keep Trying” suggests that love isn’t perfect and that life is never quite how it should be or how you want it to be. Where do you find that will to keep trying when there’s so much stacked against you?

I don’t know where it comes from. The people that I come from are tough people—they’re able to withstand a lot and keep on going. So I guess I’m looking for a reason for that or a universal supply of that. I don’t know where hope comes from, but Care is the first time I’ve maybe been able to even address it.

For me, looking the negative so directly in the eyeball is an indication that hope is there—because how would you even have the courage to do that? And on this record, I need it more.

For instance, when I wrote [Pedro The Lion’s 2002 album] Control, I didn’t even know about all that pain. I was 24 or something. I understood it thematically and I could write about it, but when I sang it 10 years later I had experienced some of that pain.

Like a lot of people, I don’t know what I’m about to write when I start to write something. It’s a process of discovery. Last year was the most difficult year of my life. It was such a difficult time that I really needed the hope to be expressed more than implied, as it might have been in the past. Because I need to sing that.

“Sometimes love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—keep trying.” That’s a message that I need to hear, so I needed it to be in the record. So I guess hope comes because you need it. You can either give up or keep hoping.

It’s interesting you say you’d never experienced the pain you wrote about on Control, because it’s so authentic. Those disintegrating relationships feel so real.

The tension of that record came from politics. I finished writing that record after 9/11, and part of what I was trying to capture was just the horrible feeling of the time—just how brutally tense everybody was. You couldn’t talk to anyone about politics because everyone was so polarized. So I hadn’t experienced the feelings I was writing about fully, but I was using those themes to try to get at a tension that I was experiencing. And now it’s all kind of integrated in a way.

The process of making Control wasn’t carefree or anything, but the stakes are higher now. I have kids, I don’t have as much gas in the tank as I did 20 years ago, and the feelings that maybe this isn’t going to work out the way that I thought it was are not hypothetical. When you’re in your 20s you think, “O.K. my life might be like this” but when you’re in your 40s the odds are my life is not going to be different to how it is but the same—this is who I am, this is where I live, this is what I’m doing. And so the urgency is different, and it really ramped up after how low I was last year.

Why were you so low?

It was just so much touring, and touring alone. I’ve toured alone a bunch, but this was touring alone not as a stop-gap but as a promise of maybe what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my career. So there was a lot grieving, because I started playing rock ’n’ roll with people.

That’s one of the things I really like about it. But I can’t afford that. I can’t afford to pay people to come on the road with me. I can’t afford to pay for their hotel rooms or food or anything. People aren’t buying my records. It’s shrinking, and there’s a sense in which I was grieving that kind of shrinkage—not that I give a shit about my status, but because it means I just have to work alone now, both creatively and on the road.

And that’s hard. I don’t love that. I’m getting used to it and I’m finding ways to make it exciting, but that’s not my choice. This is the seventh year in a row that I was gone for basically half the year and it just starts to ruin your family life.

David Bazan. Courtesy of David Bazan

That’s not something you think about when you’re 20 and in a touring band, but 15 or 20 years later it must be a very different experience.

Yeah. And that’s one of the things Care is so helpful with at the moment—by my own metric, it’s not like I’m shitting the bed creatively. I feel like I’m doing my best work. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t move the needle. And that’s a realization, when you come to it, that you have to reckon with and decide how you’re going to proceed.

Care definitely harks back to the electronic sounds you made as Headphones in 2005, just as Pedro The Lion was coming to an end. It sounds like a counterpart to that record, but whereas those songs seemed to revolve around the narrator, it seems like the surroundings of the world—and especially the politics of the USA—play a much bigger role now. Do you feel the need as an artist to take up the mantle of making political statements?

For me, I don’t want to be a tourist in politics when it’s convenient. I want whatever I’m doing to be effective. Care is not an overtly political record, yet when I listen to it, it describes the feelings I have about politics. There’s grief, there’s doubt, there’s alienation. I feel that everything is politics in a way. Or rather, I should say that the way you deal with the small politics in your life really reflects how you do the bigger, more public political things, like your opinions about policy.

For me, the song “Care” is a direct response to the threat of chaos that the Trump administration and Brexit and all this represents, which is to say I’m looking for a way to turn the tide. And the answer, I think, is empathy.

Not that I set out to write a song about that, but “Care” is about radical empathy. There isn’t any such thing as belief in something outside of one’s actions. You can claim to believe something or say that you’re about this or that, but then there’s just what you do—and I just believe in that. And that philosophy feeds into the music.

Is that something you learned from wrestling with your faith? That personal struggle with your faith seems to have become a much broader thing. It’s more about, say, religion’s place in the world as opposed to your own battle with it.

That’s right. It’s the same project in a way. I just happened to be in Evangelical Christianity when I was trying to understand the basic building blocks of truth and personal integrity and joy. Those words are awful, but I was within Christianity asking those questions and the questions remain the same. It’s just my position has shifted. [Pedro The Lion’s] “Secret Of The Easy Yoke” is the same as “In Stitches” [from David Bazan’s first full-length, Curse Your Branches]. It’s the same impulse at the root of it, which is just trying to understand the nature of truth and reality.

Paradoxically, there’s more confidence in your uncertainty now. You can hear in these songs that you’ve lived through your doubt and uncertainty, and that’s resulted in a stronger voice—even though that voice speaks the same language about the same things. There’s a sense of growth and struggle and salvation, almost.

I feel that. And peace—just trying to find peace within oneself. And that’s salvation. Salvation gets blown up as this thing that involves an afterlife and it’s very dramatic, but really it’s just being saved from a place or a feeling you don’t want to be in or have.

In a way, I still buy the promise of salvation. Not Jesus, not any of that stuff, but I still buy that there’s peace to be found. As a kid, they really tease you with it being around the corner—and I think that maybe it is, but just not with the method I was raised with.

And there are still aspects of my split from my faith and from Christianity that I need to process, just like anyone’s processing grief. The bulk of it has been processed, but living in the United States at the current time keeps re-opening those wounds.

Beyond your own wounds, do you have any hope for the future, for the US and for the world in general?

I don’t know. The situation we’re in right now is pretty dark, but I do think that things will get better. Will they get better in my lifetime? I don’t know. It’s not like the Middle Ages, where it can take 400 years for this to resolve itself, because the Earth might just go away.

David Bazan plays Capital Ale House Music Hall in Richmond, Va., on May 7. Care is out now.